Guide to the Kentucky Derby

Going beyond mint juleps and wide brimmed hats

The Kentucky Derby is an American event that’s steeped in history and tradition. The food, the Southern charm, the thrill of the race, and the mint juleps recall a golden age of American sporting events. Traditions from the garland of roses to the lyrical and sweeping official song of the Kentucky Derby, “My Old Kentucky Home,” the Kentucky Derby is a travel destination in and of itself.

Seeing it all and doing it all can be daunting, especially if you aren’t familiar with horse racing lingo, so we put together a guide to the Derby.

Kentucky Derby Details:

The race itself is May 7, 2011. There is a Taste of the Derby event being held May 5, 2011, and another race occurring on May 6, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/bgallery)

Gates open at 8:00 a.m. with the first race beginning at 10:30 a.m.

You can get a reserved seat that grants access to the Derby, Oaks, and Taste of the Derby for $480 per ticket (includes all three events).

Click here to use the official (and fun) Kentucky Derby betting guide.

Taste of the Derby:

This food festival is purposefully scheduled to kick off the Kentucky Derby and, according to its web site, it showcases the “cuisine of popular horse racing destinations across the country.” Award-winning chefs from Miami, Chicago, LA, New Orleans, and New York all commandeer the kitchens of Louisville for the evening’s various events. Make sure to buy your Taste of the Derby tickets ($275 per person) when you buy your Derby tickets.

Where to Stay:

The Galt House

is the official hotel of the Kentucky Derby, but to enhance the old Southern charm of the weekend, we’d stay at the Brown Hotel with its grand chandeliers in the lobby and their legendary “hot brown” recipe. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/define23)

What (and Where) to Eat:

610 Magnolia is a classic Louisville establishment serving “New American” fine cuisine including butter poached oysters, foie gras seared au poivre, and pan-seared monkfish. Le Relais is located at Louisville’s Bowman Field Airport and has an outdoor patio that overlooks the runway. Order the escargots, the trout meunière, or the bouillabaisse.

For lunch (or dinner, really) stop by Proof on Main for the great wine list and dishes like minted pea toast, chick pea and country ham fritters, and a bison burger. They’ve got a lively bar area, too.

What (and Where) to Drink:

Well, here’s where the mint juleps come into play. Drink your juleps on the Derby grounds and then in the evening, head out to one of Louisville’s classic bars like L & N Wine Bar and Bistro for an impressive selection of wine (with a good showing from Calif., Spain, New Mexico, Argentina, Austria, and Italy). For a tasty beer selection, head to the Cumberland Brewery, where the bar food is also a main draw for locals and visitors.  

Note: Bars in Louisville are allowed to stay open straight through the entire Derby weekend. From opening hour on Friday to closing hour on Sunday, the bars will be ready to serve. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/andrew d miller)

What to Wear:

To attend the Kentucky Derby without a wide-brimmed hat and a pair of wrist-length gloves would be to rob oneself of a uniquely old-school experience. The fashions at the Kentucky Derby are one of the few points of focus beyond the horses. Pastel colors on ladies and seersucker on men are classic choices, but regardless of what you wear, keep in mind that denim, shorts, and tennis shoes are not allowed inside most rooms associated with the Derby.

What to Look for:

To make sure you come home with the right array of photos from the Kentucky Derby, there are some long-standing traditions you should keep an eye out for.


The most obvious should be the garland of roses that adorns the winning horse. Then, get a snap with the Twin Spires in the background. They were constructed in 1895 and quickly became a defining part of the grounds. Lastly, do some research and choose your horse ahead of time then make sure you get a photo of him crossing the finish line. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/got2dv8)